Wednesday, September 21, 2011

A chat with Bitting brewer Chris Sheehan

Newark's only craft beer-maker, Port 44 Brew Pub, folded shop just three months past its first anniversary in Brick City. On July 22, the hottest day of 2011 in Newark – a record 108 degrees Fahrenheit – the financially struggling restaurant-brewery's air-conditioning conked out. The doors closed. (The For Sale sign had already gone up, sometime around the start of July; asking price, $2.1 million.)

Tossed out of work by the closing, brewer Chris Sheehan, who came to Newark fresh from Chelsea Brewing in Manhattan (he also put in time at at Triple Rock Brewery & Alehouse in Berkeley, California, and San Francisco's 20 Tank Brewery), needed a gig, a beer-maker in search of a mash to strike.

Opportunity knocked in late August, after J.J. Bitting brewer James Moss decided to relocate to New England.

Two brews (a brown ale and a hop harvest ale) into his tenure as keeper of the brewhouse in Woodbridge, Chris took some time last week from washing kegs and other duties to talk about brewing and the beers he wants to make at Bitting. He also fielded some questions about Port 44.

BSL: How long have you been with Bitting?
CS: I've been here for just over three weeks now. After Port 44 laid me off, I was unemployed for about two weeks and then picked up one week of work over at Greenpoint in Brooklyn, just one week of work there. While I was working there, I had already been in communication with Mike (owner Mike Cerami). Mike was looking for someone to step in here, so I ended up coming over here. In these economic times, been unemployed for only two weeks is not all that bad.

BSL: Bitting has its lineup of beers that are always expected to be on a share of its six taps, but you're going to bring some things to that mix, right?
CS: Mike told me the only three beers he wants to keep on at all times are the golden (Victoria's Golden Ale), the raspberry (wheat) and the amber (Avenel Amber). After that, I have room to work within my styles. I'll still bounce things off of him ... I do want to make sure the customers here are happy. I personally can't stand pumpkin beers, but I'm going to be doing a pumpkin beer. From what I gather it's been pretty popular here; I don't want to disappoint the customers.

BSL: One of your preferred styles of beer is stout, right?
CS: Well, I have a reputation for stouts. Six of my eight Great American Beer Festival medals were for stouts. By the same token, I consider myself more of California-style brewer, or a West Coast brewer.

BSL: You worked in San Francisco for a while.
CS: Yeah, my career began in California. My whole philosophy and approach is, if I'm doing a wheat beer, I'll do an American-style wheat beer. When I think of East Coast brewers, I think of brewing much more in traditional European beer styles. When I think of West Coast, I think American styles.

BSL: Lots of resiny hops ...
CS: Lots of hops, yes, in the appropriate styles. There are other styles that are not so hoppy, but are American styles, like wheat beer for example, like an American-style wheat beer versus a German hefeweizen. This place in the past has been pretty much a classic East Coast-style brewery. That's where I'm going to be bringing a little more of a different approach, as far as my philosophy being more West Coast. Not necessarily hops all over the place, but yes hops come up a little bit more in some of the beers. But at the same time, as far as the styles I brew, I'm gonna steer away from German-style hefeweizen. I'm probably gonna do an American-style wheat beer instead, come next summer. Maybe I'll do a wheat wine in the wintertime. I don't have a specific plan at this point, I'm just kinda feeling my way at this point. I have respect for the regular customers, and I don't want to come in here and just start throwing all sorts of stuff at them they're not into. It's important the customers want to drink the beer you're brewing.

BSL: But perhaps they will be able to, at some point, have a signature Chris Sheehan stout?
CS: Right. Definitely. The brown ale, we have it on cask right now, it's waiting to come on when we run out of dunkelweizen. That is basically what Mike wanted to be our dark beer for now. He didn't want to go totally into stouts at this point. But when that brown ale runs out, we'll follow it with a stout.

BSL: Bitting has traditionally done a barleywine ...
CS: Yeah, and that's where I touched on wheat wine instead of barleywine. I doubt that it's ever been done here. I'm all for a barleywine, too. I have no problem with a barleywine.

BSL: Have you done them a lot?
CS: Yeah, I've done barleywines in the past. I had a whimsically named beer over at Chelsea – it was a barleywine – just for a joke, we called it Imperial Mild. That was when everyone was doing imperial versions of everything, imperial brown ale, imperial pilsner. So OK, here's an imperial mild.

BSL: Three months from now, what would somebody coming here expect to find on tap?
CS: They always do winter warmer. I will do a winter warmer, but it will not be spiced.

BSL: Should people get the impression you want beer to taste like beer?
CS: I am a purist ... My mentality is beer should only be made with the four necessary ingredients: malt, hops, yeast and water. Maybe I can broaden that with: a grain, hops, yeast and water.

BSL: Let's talk about Port 44 for a minute. Newark is home to a Budweiser brewery, so Port 44 was the only craft brewery in New Jersey's largest city. It's a shame it closed back in July.
CS: I still believe it could be a successful business, with the right management and the right money. It has tremendous potential to be a very successful business ... You look at the (nearby) Prudential Center; it's the third-largest grossing arena in the country. Any start-up business, they say you should have financing to cover your two first years of operation, all of your expenses for your two first years of operation ...

BSL: So while you were serving up Port 44's brews, who were the regulars who came in?
CS: We had railroad guys – NJ Transit engineers. A whole group of them were mug club members. Other local business, small businesses. We had all sorts of regulars from Public Service (PSEG) and from Prudential.

BSL: So the business model it had laid out for itself was actually functioning, playing out?
CS: Yeah. The concept was good and the location was good. When I signed on, I really felt in my heart this would be a success. Whoever does buy or invest in that brewery, as long as they have restaurant or bar experience ... it could be a total success.

BSL: What were some of the brighter moments in Newark?
CS: I loved the brewery. Greg (Gilhooly, one of the founders) stumbled upon that brewhouse; we got that thing on eBay. I loved the system; I felt I was making some of the best beer of my career. It was an ITT system. From what I understand, there's only two of its kind in the whole country. I don't know where the other one is. I believe this one used to be in Michigan. It's a really unique system. I was very proud at the way I got the whole system set up.

BSL: Port 44 opened in April 2010 with guest tap beers, and its closing was well beyond that date, but just shy of the first anniversary of the Chris Sheehan-brewed beers going on tap. That has to be a great sense of frustration.
CS: It was really, really disappointing for me personally. Heartbreaking. That whole (brewing) system was my baby. I'd never done a start-up, and that's part of the reason I went there and did it, because I always wanted to be involved in a start-up. And to see it just go down the tubes like that so quickly was just very discouraging. But it was still a learning experience. I learned a tremendous amount going through the ordeal. I hope somebody will come along and be interested in buying the place.

EVENT NOTE: J.J. Bitting hosts the fifth annual Central Jersey Charity Beer Fest, 1-5 p.m. Saturday at Parker Press Park, Woodbridge, a five minute walk from the brewpub. Tickets are 25 bucks. Weather: High temp 75, 40 percent chance of rain. Rate date is Saturday, Oct. 1.

ADDENDUM: A note from a Port 44 denizen, Dave ...

I am one of the guys that was a regular at Port 44, and all my buddies were just as disappointed as I was when it suddenly closed. We happened to walk up there that day, and the doors were locked - but Chris was there and let us in. The place was hot thanks to the AC problems, and we shared our -last- beers there with Chris as he was cleaning the lines for the last time.


Then, a few weeks back, I happened to be finishing up work in the Woodbridge area and stopped by Bittings for a late lunch and sure enough, there was Chris! I was happy he landed somewhere ...


Anonymous said...

best of luck to chris. i was a law student at seton hall just down the street when port 44 opened up and not only were his beers phenomenal (i find myself wishing for a stein of longy's on regular occasions), but chris is a great guy. he really introduced me to the process of brewing and showed me how rewarding it could be--for brewmeister and customer.

Anonymous said...

At least some of the regulars of Port 44 were neighbors, too. There is a large apartment tower just up the block apiece. It's a shame the food and service weren't more consistent there. When they opened, it was really good, but it sorta slipped (I'm guessing because of money). The beer was really great, but I came there when I only wanted to drink... and I think that's a problem. Many people who are into craft beer are also foodies.

Best of luck to Chris, and I'll be visiting J.J. Bittings (not too far down the railroad!). But RIP, beers of Port 44. I liked just about every one of those beers.